Monday, January 27, 2020

Rounding the bend

Trainer Z's visits are always memorable.

"He's holding you hostage up there!"

"I know you feel like you're about to die but trust me, you can ride this."

"Get it done or this is never going to stop!"

"I don't care if he bucks, gallop!"  "Of course you don't care, you're not on him!"  "Don't make me chase you because I will!"

"Feel that?  That is throughness!"

Potato vision!  But at least I have some media

The plan today was to pick up the pieces after our introduction to flying changes.  Theo was so far behind my leg he might as well have been in another state.  He weaponized his changes to keep me from getting him in front of my leg.  Swapping leads all over the place and bucking kept me from kicking him back up into the bridle.  Trainer Z was right, he was holding me hostage.  And I did not want to do what was needed to kick through this.  I don't particularly enjoy riding Theo's tantrums, he's quite powerful.  But as she said, if I don't do something, it will never stop.  So I sat up, sat back, took a deep breath, and kept kicking.  I ignored all of the drama going on underneath me and just kept kicking.  I'm back in my snaffle bridle full time while we pick up the pieces and rebuild.

It was a very sucky 30 minutes of convincing him that I was no longer going to back off due to his theatrics followed by a very productive 30 minutes with quality trot and canter work.  I got my pony back.  The one that has a rock solid counter canter and easy transitions.  The one that takes the bit with confidence and fills up the bridle.

We also rearranged my thigh blocks.  It never really occurred to me that my short thighs mean that my knees jam into my blocks at entirely the wrong spot.  She pulled them loose and twisted them so they don't force my knee back.  We then shortened my stirrups by a half hole and my legs settled in against his sides.  Well, that's a thing.  It's not a total fix but it did stop my saddle from forcing my knee off of his barrel and my heels into his sides.  I'm planning to pull my blocks completely off my saddle for a couple rides.  Assuming that's a step forward, I'll look into getting some smaller thigh blocks.  I'm also going to borrow a Prestige saddle from Trainer Z and I'm talking to EQ Science about a test ride.

I needed this lesson to start to rebuild my confidence.  And Theo's.  Trainer Z said something similar during our lesson.  We had to introduce the changes because he was so dang good at the counter canter.  Fine, that's done, now we go back and pick up all the mess we made.  He learned a lot and it changed his canter for the better.  Now I need to find some of the joy again and kick my way through all of the nonsense we've picked up along the way.

Mid-level dressage is hard.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Perfect timing

I rode two days in a row!  One day was a 30 minute ride in my western gear, one day was a shortened jumping lesson, but it's a start.  Theo was ridden three days in a row and he was slightly disgruntled about the whole thing, but he likes the treats.

While slacking off chatting during my lesson, I mentioned to Trainer D the struggle I've been having keeping up this winter.  I asked if she had anyone that needed some saddle time that would be a match for Theo.  As the fates have it, she has an advanced student without a partner right now.  Her two horses are retired and the horse she'd been riding just went on stall rest for soundness issues.  She's been catch riding a senior QH and a stinky pony.  Trainer D wants to put her on a horse that she can really enjoy and jump.  She's also got a very good seat so the occasional spook won't be an issue.  I know her and I've seen her ride several times on different horses, she's got really good hands and a soothing personality.

It's perfect timing.  I'll get two days a week where I know my horse is being worked in a controlled, professionally supervised way.  Theo gets to have an experienced rider jump him which he loves to do.  The student gets a horse that is safe and fun to jump so she can do things that are more fun than cross rails and trying to install brakes on naughty ponies.  Trainer D gets to work with Theo three times a week (2 lessons and 1 training ride).  Apparently Trainer D and Theo have been getting along like peas in a pod.

It's a weight off of my shoulders.  Theo is a horse that needs to be kept busy, now I can share that work with two other people.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


It's not really a training struggle this time, or a Theo struggle.  This time it's all me.  I don't want to go to the barn.

There, I said it.  I don't want to go to the barn.

A large part of it is the weather.  We had a nasty cold snap with a high of 8*, about 6 inches of snow, and most of a week where temps are at 15* or lower when I'm able to get out to ride.  I have a policy of not making my horse breathe hard at 15* or lower, so no real point in riding.  And it's just freaking cold.  I went out for his massage and my fingers hurt after spending 1.5 hours in the 10* weather.  Rather than ride, I went home to have a hot cocoa.

I'm trying to make this okay in my head.  I usually take a week or two off in the winter due to the stupid weather.  This time is a bit different as I technically could be out there riding.  I just don't want to.  So Theo is enjoying a vacation where's he's been ridden about 4 times in two weeks.  Two of those rides were with Trainer D.

I'm hoping my motivation will come back with the sun.  Right now, I'm being a total introvert and barely leaving the house.  On the positive side, it's given me a bunch of time I don't usually have so I got caught up on the vacuuming and I've had more time to cook, which I love doing.

Strip steak, butterfly lobster tail, asparagus, and sauteed wild mushrooms

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about my complete lack of desire to go ride.  I've got plenty of interest in doing other things, just not going to the barn.  I may have stumbled onto all the things I miss out on when I'm riding five days a week and how relaxing it is to come home from work, putter around the house, hit the treadmill, and be done with my day.  Riding takes up at least 2.5 hours each day.  I can get a lot of vacuuming done in that time. 

I may need to start looking for a half leaser again.  There's life outside the barn and I've missed it.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Riding the beast you made

Well hello there, it's been awhile. 

After my lesson with Trainer Z, we had an ice storm.  Whelp, day off for Theo.  Then I tried to ride him on New Year's Eve and instead we ended up cowering in the arena while ice and snow fell off the roof for about 20 minutes straight.  Thank goodness I'd planned on lunging so I wasn't sitting on him when it started.  It sounded like constant thunder right over our heads and things were falling by the windows.  I gave up (poor Theo was shaking, it was so bad) and warned Trainer D to lunge him before his Wednesday training ride.  

I flew home to Minnesota to surprise my mom for her birthday and while I was there, my brother so kindly gave me an upper respiratory infection.  I flew back and then spent a couple days doing nothing but keeping the couch from flying away while my lungs tried to leave my body via hacking coughing fits.  Disgusting.  Trainer D was kind enough to keep Theo in work while all this was going on and he even gave the barn manager a jumping lesson.  He was a saint.

Also got a massage, lucky pony

I finally made it back to the saddle on Friday after over a week off.  It was a jumping lesson and I had to keep stopping because I couldn't freaking breathe.  Theo was a good packer pony and added strides as needed to keep me safely on top.  I was like a sack of potatoes with overcooked noodles for legs.  We did nothing more technical than a four stride line.

Trainer Z returned yesterday (Sunday) and I was dreading my lesson.  I'd barely been able to ride and Theo was very snorty and wide eyed with our crazy windy weather.  Everyone was telling me how sassy and wound up all the horses were being.  I went into the arena like someone facing a firing squad.  Trainer Z is a nice trainer but she does not suffer fools gladly and I was feeling very foolish.

We decided to work on canter but not flying changes.  He's got the idea, time to focus on something else and not set off Theo's winter brain.  I got read the riot act on my newly found contact problems in the canter.  Theo's dramatics have led to me giving up the contact completely in an attempt to keep him from losing his mind.  So he flails and guesses at what I want, which makes me give it up more in an attempt to keep him chill.  Trainer Z spent probably 20 minutes getting us to canter forward on a straight line down the quarter line.  My contact was all loosey goosey and he was hanging out behind my leg badly.

We couldn't do a freaking collected canter around the ring.  It was both embarrassing and enlightening.

My glitter boots, however, are not embarrassing.

Even without trying we got probably a dozen clean changes so it seems he has the mechanics figured out.  Now we can do something else with our time.  Like getting him back in front of my leg and back in the bridle.  I had managed to wrap myself up in so many knots that I was trying to touch nothing to prevent the bucking and jumping about behavior.  Nope, that's not how that works.  Kick him up into the bridle and show him what I want.  I can't spend years making him strong, fit, and sensitive only to quit riding when he gets frazzled.  I made a mid-level dressage horse, now I need to ride it.

We did get our forward, straight canter back and that felt fantastic.  We also got what I dare say was our first two steps of a more than medium trot while he was still wound up from the canter work.  I had him trotting as big as he could and I asked for a bit more and this other gear showed up for a split second.  Like I felt his back shift as he ate up more ground and Trainer Z started cheering.  I don't think even Theo knew he could do that as he had to shorten up again almost immediately but he was quite proud of himself and ready to do it again.  I stuffed him full of sugar.

Theo has managed to land in the role of schoolmaster which is crazy considering he is learning along with me.  Trainer Z has said a couple times now that he's just like teaching on a school master.  I get it right, I get a nice movement.  I screw up, he does something else.  I keep worrying about ruining him but the reality is that he's getting this faster than me.  He learns it, then waits for me to catch up.

I'm under strict orders to refocus on the fundamentals for two weeks and fix our contact problems.  I'm also on the market for a new saddle as it appears I'm moving past what my current saddle can help me with.  The more I sit, the more Trainer Z thinks my saddle is fighting my short thigh confirmation.  So joy and bliss, I'm going back on the saddle market.

Didn't I just finish with saddle shopping?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Dancing the dance of his people

Trainer Z came out to visit!  I was so happy to see her.  Scheduling problems kept her away for longer than expected and I was super eager to get kicked back onto track.  My ride on Saturday was quiet and positive, the weather was beautiful (40* in December is lovely), and the ring was all ours.  Perfect.

Then the horse trailer showed up while we were working the canter and the horse clamored out with a bunch of noise and it all got rather electric.  Theo was up on his toes from the start, probably due to the winter storm blowing in tonight.  It was nice at first but it started to boil over.

He got completely overwrought in the flying change work, lost his lid, and danced the dance of his people all around the ring.  Grrr, damn it Theo, we'd gotten past this!  True, we were working the changes harder than usual and I was making some changes to try to get them more uphill, but that level of lost chill was unwelcome.  I knew he was checking out stage right when he suddenly dove off the wall in a 'spook' followed by one of his leaping bucks.  Ugh.  After that, it was a matter of keeping the lid on while he bucked, cantered in place, tried to spin, and generally had a melt down.

The finale was when he launched himself straight up in the air and kicked out while passing the spectators.  Honestly, Theo.  Don't kick the barn manager or Trainer Z.

Whelp, rides like that happen and we sent him to big trot to reset his brain.  Trainer Z was frankly delighted with the snorting, powerful beast I was riding.  I was far less thrilled as he was still looking to come flying off the rail the second I let my guard down.  Good day to be in a double.  Yes, it was fun to sit that crazy powerful trot and do some laterals, but that was a hell of a lot of horse. 

"Ride that big fancy horse!" 
"I don't want a big fancy horse!" 
"Well you have one so you better ride it!"

Once his brain was back, Trainer Z got out the lunge whip.  Seemed like a good day to make Theo jig and it was time for him to start working on half steps.  Theo knows Trainer Z well so I wasn't worried about him freaking out and striking her like he would a stranger, I was more worried about him dumping me while overreacting.  He has zero fear of lunge whips but he has been known to scoot under pressure.

Turns out I didn't have to worry.  We started with tapping his hocks to get him to pop his hind legs up.  He figured that out very quickly and was eager to pop up his hind legs in exchange for a sugar cube.  Touching with the whip while he was moving worked a bit too well and he'd tuck his butt too much.  He couldn't trot like that and would try to canter.  We ended up having the best results when I did it without a ground person.  Walk trot walk trot walk trot walk trot very collected walk Half Steps!  Theo is a very quick study when it comes to earning sugar and we got two real steps. 

I expected him to be even more wound up after that but the half steps work seemed to settle him down.  He was calmer afterward, like he'd gotten something out of his system.  Trainer Z laughed and said 'Muffin doesn't spook anymore, he just piaffes and passages'.  That will take some getting used to.

So it was the tale of two Theos.  On the one hand, complete meltdown with big bucks and leaps.  On the other hand, we had some big, clean changes (which led to the meltdown so there you go) and our first half steps.  He's such a complicated critter.

Two weeks until our next dressage lesson.  I'm supposed to be working on those uphill changes with the full understanding that they will be dramatic but I can sit it so I just need to ride through it.  Which sucks and is hard for me emotionally but I need to face it.  With everything he unloaded tonight, my butt stayed right in the saddle.  I never lost my stirrups, I wasn't in danger.  I didn't like it, but it was within my wheelhouse.  I can't drop him on his forehand to keep the change non-dramatic.  I'm going to need to wear my silicone full seats, sit back, and just go for it.

I'm starting to understand why people are willing to pay so many thousands of dollars for a horse with a change.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Let's discuss 2020

2019 was a competition year.  It was a year where I got the pay out for the many years of work that preceded it, including being terribly humbled in 2017 and rebuilding in 2018.  I bounced all over New England.  I showed, I got scores I was proud of, and I moved up to Second Level.

Next year will be different.  I made it to one plateau.  Theo is now a very confirmed low level dressage horse.  He can hold his own right up to Second.  Now it's time to see if he can make the jump to a mid-level dressage horse.  Next year is not going to be about pretty ribbons.  It's going to be a building year where I put in the miles on these more complicated tests.  I need to practice my (non-existent) ring craft, Theo needs practice with holding himself up in that higher frame for a whole test.  He needs an actual medium and maybe an approximation of an extension.  We don't need to pay for rated competitions to do that.  Any standard sized ring with a poor trapped sucker judge will do.

I do expect to debut Third in 2020, but I expect it to be at schooling shows.  I don't expect us to be ready to go into competition just yet.  We might get confirmed enough to go do a couple one day shows late in the season and knock out our scores but I don't intend to do any overnight shows or big shows.  Just little stuff, one test at a time, building up our confidence and experience.

We will be out doing the western dressage thing and moving up to Level 3.  Not a lot, but a couple of local outings to support the discipline.  If we have our flying change, we might even toy with Level 4.  Will we go to the championships?  Maybe.  I'm not writing it off as our one away show of the season, but it's not really on the calendar.  I'm going to have my hands full with training and I'm not sure if I want to add a three day show to the calendar when his counter canter might still be a bit busted.

There will be a third type of show on the calendar.  Trainer D and I have been plotting out how to reintroduce Theo to the world of the h/j show without the drama of our last outing.  I'm currently looking at taking him out in the modified adult eq (2'3") to make sure I can keep the lid on him before moving up to the adult eq classes (2'9").  I have zero expectations or goals with this, it's strictly for fun and helping Theo be a well rounded equine citizen.  Trainer D has volunteered to take him around for some of those early rounds to help him build confidence.  He's developed a good relationship with her and I think he'll take a lot of confidence from her calm, professional approach to the courses.

After 2019, I'm looking forward to a quiet year with minimal travel.  I may have also committed to a crazy race in 2020 that will require me to be in serious run training through the summer so that will be a thing.

Margaritas, dinner with running friends, and online entries are a dangerous mix.  Don't do it.  You might end up registered for an ultramarathon.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

2019: The year of 'Who, Us?'

What a year.  Wow.  I started the year with no real guidance or training.  I was ready to give up on my dreams of a Bronze since I didn't know if we could do it.  Or how to get there.

February brought us Trainer Z and a plan to make our goals a reality.

This was really the biggest event of 2019.  Trainer Z rode Theo and declared that we were ready for Second and there was no reason to stop at Third.  We could do it and she was going to show us the way.  All of a sudden I had a map and someone to show me where I was on it.  I stopped wondering if I could do Second and started wondering when I would move up. 

I set out on a very aggressive show schedule to make the most of my year.

We had good shows, we had bad shows.  Some days he was an angel, some days he was a land porpoise.  I got everything between 64% and 55% at Second but we got our Second Level scores for our Bronze.  We also got our first 70 in both standard dressage and western dressage.  Theo is still undefeated in western dressage.

I also learned that miles won't make Theo easier to manage at away shows.  He's not a good horse for multi-day shows.  It's been a difficult pill to swallow but every horse has their flaws.  I've learned to respect this and to focus on day shows.

By the end of the show season, we were actually comfortable in our Second Level tests and I didn't want to puke on my way down centerline.  A very important victory.

And then the wheels came off at the barn.  We moved to a new barn with very little notice.  We made new friends and started riding with Trainer D.  Jumping became a regular event and Theo blossomed with the additional cross-training and improved care.

We've come a long way from being the pair that was always in last place.  This year we had good scores and good ribbons (an amazing number of yellow ribbons, not sure what's up with that).  People now recognize Expect the Unexpected and not for a bad reason.  We were the year end champion for Second Level with my local GMO.  Theo got his Register of Merit in western dressage.  We were ranked 16th in the nation for AA First Level freestyle.

Looking back, things like bad judges and blows to the head and sleepless nights seem so much more minor.  2019 was one hell of a year.  We're going into the new decade with a new home, new trainers, and goals that would have seemed impossible a year ago. 

2020 will be a building year, not a showing year.  I'm glad we got to have this year of victories to build up my confidence as we go into a training cycle.  This is the first year where I feel like I can call myself a dressage rider.